Professional football on Thanksgiving Day has become as much of an American tradition as turkey. Yet, what happens after the game — and what is often not aired by major media networks — may be the best and most traditional way to celebrate the holiday.
Americans are generally familiar with the story of the first Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims traveled to the New World in the 1600s seeking freedom from the Church of England and the King’s rule. They came to America so they could pray and worship God in their own way. Despite initial suffering and tremendous loss, the Pilgrims joined together with Native Americans a year after their arrival and thanked God for His provision. Today, families and friends continue to gather together and thank God for all that He has given us.
For the past 25 years, professional football players have also come together before God with thanksgiving. The Monday Night Football game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 3, 1990, captured one of the largest audiences in the show’s history. Prior to the game, the teams’ chaplains organized what would become the first joint NFL postgame prayer circle. Not seen on television, the players bowed their heads at the 50-yard line following a tense matchup to honor God and thank Him for the opportunity to play the game. The tradition continues today.
What the Pilgrims and NFL players knew is that we honor God by giving thanks to Him through prayer, regardless of our circumstances.
The last couple of years of my life have not been easy. In 2015, I lost my job as a football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, a job that I loved and felt called to, for silently praying alone on the field after games for maybe 15 or 30 seconds. For seven years, I knelt on the field and thanked God for His faithfulness in protecting the players on the field. I also praised Him for entrusting me with the responsibility of coaching my team.
After I lost my job, it would have been easy to stop giving thanks. I have a family who depends on me. I have students who watched authority figures in their school fire me for standing by my convictions. It would have been easy to get frustrated and question God.
Instead, as the Bible instructs, I rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. That is not because my life is without hardship. To be honest, it never has been. My current circumstances have not changed. I am still a coach without my team. A federal court said that the Constitution does not protect me even if all I want to do is take a knee and silently pray by myself for a few seconds because someone might see kneeling in silence. Still, prayer and thanksgiving are the source of my strength and hope in this battle and the ones to come.
With controversy surrounding the NFL and National Anthem, television cameras on Thanksgiving Day and throughout the holiday season are certain to focus on whether players take a knee before the games. However, they are likely to miss the players who, for an even greater purpose, take a knee after.
As a coach, I tell my players to fight harder on the field when things get tough and to always be grateful. As an American, with all of the rights and protections our Constitution provides its citizens, I should have never had to give up everything for what I believe in. Still, I am grateful to God for his continued faithfulness, and I will never stop giving Him thanks.
• Joe Kennedy is a former football coach for Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, and retired Marine. He was suspended and later terminated for taking a knee to offer a private prayer at the 50-yard line after football games. Coach Kennedy is represented by First Liberty Institute, a national law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom. FirstLiberty.org.